Why Climate Change Melts Our Brains

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Words: Gabriela Godinez Feregrino (she/her)

Embarrassingly, we did, in fact, start the fire. It started burning after we kicked off the Industrial Revolution which, in retrospect, perhaps wasn’t such a great idea. When did it all go wrong? Is course correction still possible? Why is this topic so exhausting?

Awareness of climate change is relatively new, but its discovery is older than most realise. In April 1896, the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science published an article by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius called ‘On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.’ He theorised that using fossil fuels could create global warming, leading to ‘the extinction of the human race.’ In response, the human race continued burning coal.

In A Brief History of Climate Change Discoveries, published in 1938 by UK Research and Innovation, amateur scientist Guy Callendar ‘discovered that global temperatures had risen over 0.3°C over the previous 50 years.’ His research was ignored. The article notes that in 1958, geochemist Charles David Keeling’s research showed CO2 levels were rising, and a decade later, an Ohio State University glaciologist predicted the melting of the polar ice caps. Again, the research was largely ignored until the 1995 Larsen A ice shelf collapse. It wasn’t just a theory anymore; the evidence was tangible. Suffice to say we have been having this conversation for a while. 

Why is a warmer planet so dangerous? The temperature of the ocean largely dictates our weather. Simply put, warmer oceans lead to more extreme weather. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, changes in sea surface temperature can ‘increase the risk of heavy rain and snow’, ‘shift storm tracks’, and ‘lengthen the growth season for certain bacteria that can contaminate seafood and cause foodborne illnesses, thereby increasing the risk of health effects.’ Changes in storm patterns lead to droughts, forest fires, floods and food shortages.

Until we create a viable, rapid way to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, we aren’t talking about healing the world, only preventing further damage. Austrian Lawyer and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk was quoted by Al Jazeera: ‘In recent months, urgent warnings have become lethal realities again and again all around the world […] We do not need more warnings. The dystopian future is already here. We need urgent action now.’

So what is stopping us? One factor for this conflict is capitalism. Oil companies protect their corporate interests by funding biased research and lobbying governments. In the 1970s, ExxonMobil paid researchers to investigate the causes of climate change. An Exxon internal memo in 1979 stated that ‘to prevent significant climate changes in patterns of energy use would be required.’ ExxonMobile knew consumers would have to stop using fossil fuels to prevent climate change. In response, coal company coalitions like the Western Fuels Association formed the Information Council for the Environment to ‘reposition global warming as theory, not fact’, among other missions. According to Forbes, ‘every year, the world’s five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million on lobbying designed to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy.’

But some people are fighting back. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition reported that ten countries declared their opposition to deep-sea mining in international waters this year. Researchers at Purdue University have created a white paint that ‘reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight’ to help cool down cities. The Italian company Dyaqua made invisible solar roof tiles ‘that look like traditional terracotta shingles.’ The UN has adopted the tiles as part of an initiative to preserve historical sites while making them greener. 

There is hope we will survive this crisis, but other emotions often dampen that hope. We get angry with one another, feel hopeless, and eventually want to turn away from the conversation altogether. In a TedTalk, Norwegian Psychologist Dr Per Epsen Stoknes argued that ‘identity trumps truth any day.’ While conservative views largely work against our collective self-interest, rejecting reality is still a very human reaction. Asking people to change their stance on climate change is asking them to alter the worldview to which they attach their identity fundamentally. Therefore, some find comfort in denial lest they live in fear.

Following the science isn’t without its limitations. Two researchers at Stanford University published an article in The Conversation that examines why our brains struggle to visualise large quantities. ‘The brain is optimised to recognize small quantities because smaller numbers are what people tend to interact with most on a daily basis.’ The authors explain that ‘anything bigger than 5 is too large a quantity to intuitively recognize.’ We understand the tragedy when the media relays the number of people who have died, been injured, or been displaced because of climate change. However, the numbers eventually blur, and their incessant presence looming over us drains any energy we could have had to generate change. From the front page to the For You Page, climate change conversations find us experiencing what Dr. Stoknes calls ‘apocalypse fatigue.’ It isn’t that we don’t care; our brains simply aren’t wired to hold so much catastrophe at once. 

Acting locally yields visible results that boost morale. We want our community to fare well, so we vote to fund new infrastructure that will survive unusual weather patterns. We don’t want to increase respiratory issues in our children, so we ask local authorities to declare low or zero-emission zones. We don’t want to go bankrupt heating our homes in harsher-than-normal winters, so we demand better-insulated homes and green energy alternatives.

Looking at our history, at what we ignored and how we were tricked, will better equip us to demand change not just for the planet’s future but for the survival of us now. Vote for your government, vote with your pounds, and don’t allow yourself to be silenced. We must remember that our parents, friends, neighbours, and future generations are worth fighting for. You are worth fighting for.
















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